San Francisco

San Francisco

Various Venues, San Francisco

The revival of the figure in Bay Area art is, by now, nothing new, although chroniclers of the switch from an Abstract Expressionist style speak and write as if a palace coup had taken place just last week. The reality of the situation in the Bay Area couldn’t be more distant from the generalized polemics usually written about the area. One is led to believe the dominant tendency in the area is still toward a concrete, figurative imagery fixed in objective three-dimensional space and handled in a loose, brushy manner. The inaccuracy of this generalization is realized when one examines the work of the younger painters and sculptors (for example, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, William Brown) who, under mythical circumstances, are filling out the ranks of a second generation of neo-figurative artists. The interesting thing is the preponderance of these artists in the art schools, colleges and universities throughout the area. The approach to teaching drawing and painting is sufficiently conservative to appeal to the traditionally conservative young art student, and satisfy his need to cope with the same problems that perplexed artists from Cimabue to Picasso, and yet maintain a link with the current avant-garde. It is a very happy way for a student to come to grips with painting or sculpture. The difficulty begins when the student confuses his teacher’s way of teaching with the teacher’s way of painting.

Nathan Oliveira is an artist who has remained outside the ties linking such artists as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, William Brown, Roland Peterson, Walter Snelgrove and Joan Brown. In the late fifties there was a certain affinity between his paintings of faceless standing and walking figures set in ambiguous space, and Diebenkorn’s work of the same period, perhaps best characterized by The Girl on the Terrace in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Neuberger. In the ensuing years the difference in their styles has widened considerably, and it is in Oliveira’s two concurrent exhibits, drawings at the Lanyon Gallery in Palo Alto and prints at the San Francisco Museum of Art that the sensibilities of the two artists seem once more to cross, if not parallel, each other. The drawings at the Lanyon are divided into two groups, one strictly linear and executed with what appears to be a wide nib pen and ink and the second group rendered in pencil and watercolor wash. The ink drawings are as bad as the wash drawings are good. Oliveira seems unsure of the nude female figure with a pen in his hand; he places them unstably and in awkward positions on the paper. The images themselves have an aura of awkwardness and timidity that is surprising and disconcerting in the context of Oliveira’s other graphic work (not to mention his paintings). Further heightening the strange quality of these works is their insistent recollection of Diebenkorn’s scratchy, linear drawings which were shown at the Stanford Museum several months ago. The same distortion, the same gracelessness (far too much in Oliveira’s case) and the same blunt forthrightness of manner.

If the drawings at Lanyon seem like indifferent Diebenkorns, the prints at the San Francisco Museum are Nathan Oliveira at his best. From the earliest color prints, Lisa and The Great Bird of 1956 and 1957, recalling the Goyaesque printmaking tradition, the artist has progressed to a highly personal rendering of figures and animals in the symbolist tradition. The Flutist done in 1957 parallels his painting of the period. A half-length figure, built up with fluttering virtuosity, reaches a high point of gestural beauty in the way the arm, hand and flute are tipped against the worked up space just behind the figure. Four variations on a head are a superb group, owing their collective force, in part, to the dark beauty of the young woman depicted in the lithos and in part to the progressive changes of the dark-light relationships from the first print to the fourth.

If Oliveira has shifted uneasily at times under the pressure of the neo-figuration of the area, another Bay Area artist has fixed it into a creamy stare. The boldly rendered figures of Wayne Thiebaud gaze directly at the viewer as he enters the rear gallery of the Stanford Museum in Palo Alto. The faces have the noncommittal look patrons of a municipal bus wear in the evening rush hour. It’s a look which may be read many ways: fear, boredom, irritation; the faces can mean anything one wishes, as if they were masks containing bits of every ugliness and beauty filtering through their features. Thiebaud gives us the same mask. The figures are a bit stiff and too obviously posed, especially in the pictures containing more than one figure. The stiffness is not a natural mirroring of people in public places, self-consciously aware of themselves, but rather a posed quality, as if Thiebaud had firmly told them, “Damn it your shoulder dropped again; lift it up.” These paintings err in the direction of slick portraiture, not as often or as badly, but enough to distract. The risks the artist takes in painting in three-quarter life size, with each of the sitters rendered as if he or she had stepped out of an advertisement for Jantzen swimwear, are obviously enormous. In twentieth century painting of the highest order, the subject is used in a personal, sometimes inexplicably private way, so that the life of the painting extends far beyond the point of recalling a particular landscape, still life or figure. The demeaning of the subject has been merciless and necessary in order that the work of art can be an object in its own right with its own logic, history and force. Thiebaud defies the modern tradition in a very artful way. The nineteenth-century romantic artists used theatrical pathos, agitated compositional devices and exotic subject matter in order to dramatize their pictures. Thiebaud inverts their procedures but arrives at the same dramatic conclusion. It’s a dumb, gestureless drama to be sure but a drama nonetheless. Thiebaud’s earlier pictures of lollipops, lemon pies and cakes were enigmatic and open to wide interpretation. His recent figures are only slightly less so, poker faced well painted portraits of middle-class Americans.

“Science Age Totems” is the name given the grouping of four artists’ works at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Presumably we have lived in a scientific age since Galileo, but we are given in recent times to questioning the sense of the end products science has so half-wittedly dropped on the front stoop of mankind. To ignore the increasingly oppressive scientific oligarchy is stupid. To embrace it unequivocally is blindness and to try to exploit it without the highest degree of sensitivity to the pitfalls of its deadening rationality is, for the artist, suicidal. Of the artists in the exhibit Tony Delap recognizes most clearly the requirements of his sculptures. Their surfaces demand perfection; he makes them perfect by engaging skilled workmen to cut the hardware and fit the individual pieces together in perfect coherence. The hexagonal work appropriately titled The Specialist has the perfection of finish and structure in common with an oculist’s eye-testing machine. Manipulation of material is at a minimum; the work is conceived on a drafting board, the necessary components selected, machined, polished or painted and then assembled. The process is one of orderly progression, one logical step to the next and one logical form to the next. The result is a sculptured object that rejects the idiosyncrasies of the hand-made. The procedural step in rejecting the handmade is a very large and difficult one for most artists to take and Delap has managed it flawlessly.

Robert Stevenson is less gifted than Delap, both technically and as a designer. The group of small pieces mounted under a glass cube and lighted from the bottom is the strongest piece in the show. The plexiglass, tape and paint still seem to give Stevenson a good many problems when they are combined. Many of the pieces have too much going on internally to be wholly convincing, while others are just inept. The large wood and lacquer pieces by John McCracken are, formally, very nice. The piece titled Manchu  is composed of a massive block of wood in two sections forming a solid whole, with a zig-zag cut a few inches in width and depth inscribed on the leading plane of the wooden cube. The color is beautifully applied, with obviously many coats of lacquer used to bring the surface to such perfection, but the chrome green and tomato red used are disagreeable hues. The other pieces are equally good but with similar color problems.

Charles Perry’s work exploits the visually and philosophically fascinating aspects of a rhythmic continuum. All the works are in traditional materials such as bronze, marble and wood. The piece titled Cossini I is a sphere, with some peripheral flattening. Internally it has an endless series of beautifully carved, convoluted shapes, leading the eye in and out of the white interstices.

Frank Hamilton’s work continues to improve with each exhibition The improvement comes through what appears to be a deeper concentration on formal visual properties; hue and value relationships, small areas working with large ones and what, in general, could be termed a heightened sense of perception. If the earlier paintings were too scattershot in what they attempted visually, the recent works run the risk of being too didactic in their insistence on showing the viewer what can happen when red-orange is used in fifteen canvases in fifteen ways. The risk, however, doesn’t seem too critical since Hamilton’s visual interests are wider than merely trying to build a vocabulary of predictable visual diacritics.

Since 1961 the work of Bruce Beasley has had an enormous amount of success. In 1961, when Beasley was 24 years old, he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibit, the “Art of Assemblage.” Two years later one of his pieces was acquired by the Modern Museum in Paris and soon after the Guggenheim Museum bought one work and the Museum of Modern Art in New York followed. The present exhibit is his third one-man show in three years, the first two having been in Los Angeles and New York. Confronted with such an impressive poop sheet, one is slightly staggered. As the work itself is examined the question of why all the success keeps coming up. The cast pieces in various metals are abstract and refer obliquely to skeletal forms in the same way as Jack Zajac’s late work does. A great deal of formularization occurs in the freestanding pieces. The artist has a penchant for long, slender extensions from the trunk or center of each piece. Usually the works have a short piece of metal protruding in a shallow arc form. The surfaces of the pieces are tastefully worked without ungainly lumps or offensive distortion; nothing too twisted or gnarled here, although they are roughly textured. The wall pieces are small and are mounted on tastefully framed, whitened board. They are made up of pieces and bits of hand tools arranged so the final product has a strong directional thrust modified by the feinting twists and turns of the basic components. The clue to Beasley’s sculpture is its inherent tastefulness. There is no rude robustness; the sculpture does exactly what it is supposed to do without exceptional strength or weakness.

The Achenbach Foundation of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor put together a stellar show of Marc Chagall’s graphic work highlighting his entire printing career. The exhibit was staged a few weeks ago to show off a recently acquired Chagall lithograph that is, in terms of the medium, monumental. The litho is approximately six feet high by four feet wide, and is divided into three sections and mounted like a free-standing Japanese screen. The subject is typical of Chagall, depicting a recollection of an afternoon spent in Paris, with the events lazily scattered across the whole composition. The sun, a man and woman, a vase of giant flowers, a settee, glimpses of the city, are all rendered in a bright-color crayonish style, deliberately spotty in handling, to give a freshness to the large print. The linear structure is enormously fluid and unrestrained.

Nicolas Nickolds called his exhibition at the Horizon Gallery “Sacred and Profane” for reasons difficult to determine from the paintings, unless we understand the chimerical, delicately painted interiors with male and female figures involved in various love acts to be profane (or sacred). At any rate, sacred, profane, both or neither, they aren’t nearly as good as another group of poetically evocative abstract landscapes. The landscapes have a generous amount of bare white canvas exposed, interrupted by swiftly brushed stains of blues, browns, blacks and reds. The potency of these paintings depends on the immediacy and accuracy of the brushed-in area, much like the discipline necessary for sumi painting. Judging from the initial attempts in this direction, Nickolds seems temperamentally suited for his new-found way.

The work of John Hamilton and Serge Trubach followed the Nickolds show at the same gallery. Hamilton, a talented newcomer to formal abstraction, shows a great deal of promise in this, his first show. He has a fertile imagination with a definite Surrealist turn. His paintings are perhaps too packed at this point, but it is a minor problem since the forms are quite interesting. Hamilton’s color sense is appropriate to the formal demands of his pictures, and he avoids the lurid monochromes unhappily present in so much early and latter day Surrealism.

Serge Trubach’s pictures have become much more specific, perhaps as a result of his recent exploration of three dimensional collage. The change is for the better, since the abstract imagery has been made to function on a more articulated design basis and the paintings are stronger and less tentative for it.

For Gregory Kondos, landscape is what still-life and figures are for Wayne Thiebaud. The stylistic affinities shared are strikingly similar between the two artists. Of the two, Kondos is the more romantic. His light-hued precisely painted landscapes of Greece are fascinating because the artist obviously identifies with the subject, and yet he paints in an almost detached manner. The simplicity of treatment recalls the young English watercolorist, Bonington, whose exquisite renditions of Northern France, done so many years ago, seem so fresh today.

Oskar Rabin, a Soviet artist, shows just how easy it is to be an “unofficial” artist within the rigid structure of Russian art-politics. The fairytale-illustration quality of his work, amounts to a kind of asocial-realism. Who could object to it on ideological grounds? No one, really, but one suspects that it is refused recognition in the artist’s home country simply because it represents a semi-private world. The exhibit was brought to the Arleigh Gallery in San Francisco by Jeremy Ets-Hokin, an ex-member of the San Francisco Art Commission and the only member asked to resign by a San Francisco mayor in the history of the commission. Mr. Rabin’s plight was certainly deeply felt by Mr. Ets-Hokin, who should be sensitive to matters of justice, or the lack of it, in high places.

James Monte